Organised packaged food players are feeling the heat on their health claims, product formulations and nutrition levels on the back of concerns raised by public health advocates, social media influencers and users in recent times. Experts said this is likely to push organised players to make a more pronounced shift towards healthier products and more transparency in their labels.

Last week, Swiss NGO Public Eye had raised concerns about “added sugar” levels in Nestle’s baby food products sold in India and other developing markets. Stating that there is no definition for “health drinks”, earlier this month FSSAI had directed e-commerce players to not categorise products such as Bournvita, Complan and Horlicks as health drinks on their sites. Spices brands Everest and MDH are facing the heat from Centre for Food Safety, Hong Kong’s food regulator, over allegations of presence of ethylene oxide in some products. Also, social media influencer Revant Himatsingka made claims about high sodium levels in certain ready-to-eat items served in-flight on Indigo.

According to KS Narayanan, food & beverage expert and former MD, McCain Foods India, cursory adherence to regulatory norms is different from strictly following practices that promote public health. Having said that, packaged food companies also face a lot of genuine practical issues that need to be addressed while simultaneously following health norms.

“The national and international packaged food companies usually make sure they comply with the regulations in letter. Food standards set up by FSSAI are harmonised with the CODEX standards. But are they complying in spirit is the big question. The challenge is that the ingredients that you get in India could be vastly different from other markets. Hence, product formulations could vary from country to country due to various factors. Brands also need to address local needs of consumers in each market in terms of pricing and packaging,” said Narayanan.

This heightened scrutiny comes at a time when consumers are increasingly seeking healthier food products. Social media has enabled public health activists and influencers to propagate their messaging far and wide. At the same time, insurgent brands offering healthier options or clean label products are nibbling away at the market share of larger players, say experts.

“Going forward, packaged food companies which are not following the standards in letter and spirit, will be increasingly called out. At the same time, we may also see far more innovations in terms of better-for-you products and more transparent declarations from the organised players,” Narayanan added.

Rinka Banerjee, Founder, Thinking Forks Consulting and Former R&D Director of HUL, stated that packaged food companies have already begun the shift towards healthier product portfolios.

“A key approach that is being driven globally and in India as well in food product innovation is to gradually reduce the negative nutrients and increase positive nutrients in products, such that you still deliver great taste and consumers slowly adapt to lower saltiness or sweetness in products for example. It is a stepwise approach,” she said.

Harsh Gursahani, a food lawyer and Partner at PLR Chambers, pointed out that making scientifically-backed claims, aligned with regulations, helps companies create a differentiator in the market. “While larger players have generally been more careful of making false claims, we are also now seeing a lot more mid-sized and small sized packaged food companies coming to us for assistance to ensure their claims are scientifically-backed and comply with the regulations,” he added.

Meanwhile, public health advocates are calling for a more stringent framework for the packaged food industry.

Arun Gupta, Convenor, Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), in a video post on X stressed the need for a more comprehensive and stringent legal framework to address these issues. He said that there is a need to have a definition for high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) products and front-of-the pack warning labels.